repotting techniques

greentoe357July 10, 2013

Two repotting technique questions.

First. How do you repot a plant that consists of a bunch of rooted stem cuttings?

It's easy to hold "a root ball" in place while working the mix into the container around it, but what if there are half a dozen or more little separate root balls? I can't hold them all at the same vertical level but also spaced out a bit from each other horizontally while also filling the pot with soil - not enough hands for that. I've repotted plants with 3 rooted cuttings before no problem, 4-5 was challenging, and now I have a very bushy hoya that seemingly has about a dozen plants in there.

Leaving the old soil clump together helps maintain the position of the little plants relative to each other, but then I have one soil in the middle of another soil, with two different perched water tables and the resulting impossibility of watering correctly.

Any advice? Video links would be great, too.

And another repotting question. I hear the advice to work the mix into the roots gently with a chopstick when repotting. Can someone talk a bit more about how to do that - or better yet point me to a video of the process? I am afraid to injure or break the roots by poking at them with a stick. Does the chopstick advice apply only to certain kinds of plants or mixes - or to all repottings?

What I've been doing is fill the bottom with the mix, hold the plant at the level where I want it with one hand, then gradually pour the mix portion by portion around the roots while rotating the pot as I go along. When roots start covering up, I would shake the pot gently from side to side (say east to west), then rotate 90 degrees and shake gently north to south, so that the mix settles snugly around all the roots on all sides. Intuitively, this seems to me like it would do the job better than poking with a chopstick. What am I not seeing?

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Hi Green..
After reading your post, your last paragraph answers your question.

I repot as you do.

No chopsticks involved. Chopsticks are for eating Chinese food, as far as I know. Toni

    Bookmark   July 10, 2013 at 11:10AM
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the chopstick thing is great, lol. ive never heard of that but then I am relatively new. I generally try not to disturb the roots as much as possible other than loosening the ball some. then again with some plants I will just tear off the half the root ball. or like when I repotted my passion flower this year I took a knife to the roots and removed close to half.

for smaller plants I like to wet the new soil first then add the plant to it. rather than getting it potted watering and having all the structure collapse on me.

for larger plants I also do exactly the same as the last paragraph. an additional set of hands is always nice.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2013 at 11:55AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

There should be air holes throughout the soil mix. Shaking, tamping, prodding is not something I would do. I try to leave everything as loose as possible, uncompacted, so roots can roam so much more easily. When everything is moist, it's easier to remove the old soil (you're right about 2 different soils being a bad thing,) and untangle, so you can see what you're dealing with. Any roots too long to fit back in the pot without bending are trimmed when I repot. "Snug" is exactly the opposite of what I aim for.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2013 at 12:11PM
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I think it all depends on the medium. very fine you don't want to compact much, but if it's orchid bark with perlite for example (very loose some what course medium), you need to compact it. generally I do it gently with spread fingers: you can feel the roots and wiggle the soil in somewhat. with chopstick you won't feel the root, with fingers you will.
I usually repot myself with nobody helping, so this is what I do with multistems:
put them flat on the floor . use flexible elastic string (cotton with lycra strips are best, also elastic could be used, but you can use reg cotton t-shirt cut in strips, it has enough give) to loop around stems not tightly. then roll it up in a bundle and tie up. the elastic will hold it together. tie it up may be 3-4" above ground level or even higher - this way you'll be able to spread the stems somewhat so they are not bunched together tightly. sometimes I tie the string tightly to a stake and then bundle up - so the whole structure can stand, while I am adding soil (push the stake into the bottom soil layer).
then do as you do. watering in helps to settle the soil too. but sometimes you don't want to water right away. if the medium is coarse and roots are fine and you don't compact the soil - the roots might dry up from too much air around them. but it also depends on the type of plant and type of roots.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 10:50AM
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Thanks, everyone, for replies. I've made my gritty mix (finally!), and then it was time to repot the multi-stem hoya I was talking about - I actually repotted two big ones, but this one was especially challenging.

This is a description (perhaps TOO detailed) of how I repotted - it might benefit other beginners or invite suggestions for improvement, which I definitely welcome.

Here is a pic with roots washed completely off of the old medium. The plant is much bigger than it seems here because of perspective (arm is closer than the plant) and the hoya stems all hanging together rather than the afro that was happening when it was in the pot. This thing was filling out a 7.5' hanging basket to the point where the mix was not visible at all from the top, and neither were the sides of the basket when looking from the sides. I thought about cutting through the mix with a knife in half or maybe even into quarters, but I would have lost a lot of roots, I figured. Instead, I held the root ball in a bowl of water and teased the roots loose with my fingers gently under water for a good five minutes. Old soil gradually sank to the bottom. Then I took it out and washed the stubborn remains of the old mix with a shower. The picture shows the result.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2013 at 12:48AM
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Then I gently tried to tease the separate stems with their own roots apart. I was expecting much more roots to be torn away, considering this is my first such complicated repotting. The number of separate plants ended up being even higher than I thought - about 20. I did not even bother separating them all (see picture) - small clumps of 2-3 plants with roots still entangled seemed ok to me - the alternative was ripping off more roots and more difficult to manage 20 separate plants than say 8 separate clumps of plants. The plan was to separate it into two pots: one the same 7.5’ pot and the other a 6-incher. I filled the bottom of the pots with a bit of the gritty mix to the level where I wanted the bottoms of the roots to be now, then I laid the plants roots in but stems hanging outside the pot like rays of sun in both pots, separating the number of plants to the degree of fullness I wanted in each pot. Then I would push the roots in a bit into the pot and tried my best with one hand to hold them roughly at the height and horizontal distance I wanted, then with the other hand I would pour small portions of grittyg mix on top gradually. The mix is heavy, so it would weight the roots down and fix them in place somewhat, so that I could let go of the plants. Then I would adjust the height of each plant as necessary - some plants needed to be pulled up because parts of leaves ended up under the mix. I gently shook the pot, so that the mix settles, then pour some more mix, then again check if the vertical and horizontal positions of each plant were ok. I would also adjust the stems so that they are vertical rather than leaning outwards the pot as they naturally wanted to do.

My bark was pre-soaked overnight, and then I mixed it in with granite and DE. DE absorbed some water from the bark, but overall the mix felt relatively dry, which is exactly how I wanted it - I think it would have been more difficult to work with soggy mix because it would not drip down to where it’s supposed to go easily and would stick to hands, tools and parts of the plant. Then after all the mix was in, I watered the plant in very generously.

With some patience, it was actually not as impossible a task as I had imagined - I just had to try, which I encourage every other beginner who reads this to do. In the end I will not know success or failure until a few weeks pass, which they haven’t yet, but I am excited to see how the plants do. Some small number of leaves is wilting a day or two later, I see, which I guess is a sign of the shock such drastic repotting would cause.

Any suggestions for improvement of how to do this next time?

    Bookmark   July 26, 2013 at 12:51AM
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you could tent the plants with plastic to create a more humid environment for a few weeks, until the roots gets used to new medium.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2013 at 8:36AM
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Good going Greentoe. Looks like you're learning one of the most basic, if not THE most basic, rules of gardening (in pots or not) - be creative, try different things, experiment, adapt. And don't fear the garbage can! If a plant dies, you haven't failed, you've learned something not to do.

Also, as I'm sure you've noticed in reading the forums, people have many ways of doing things. The "chop stick" subject is a good example. You were worried about the "right" way to do it, but some people think it's not a good idea, some people never heard of it, some people use it some times and not others. So there's really no "right" way, just what works for you.

One thing about roots, though - don't be so afraid of them. Bonsai growers cut roots drastically as a regular part of maintenance. And just in this one small thread, you can see a lot of root cutting going on. Just be careful of the main feeder roots that attach to the plant stem - if you break those, the plant is in trouble.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2013 at 10:02AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

FW, very well said.

FWIW, I usually trim enough roots away that there's not a worry about a big air pocket in/under them. I arrange the roots going straight out from the crown, spread out as much as possible, then start scooping in 'dirt,' then jiggle/raise it a bit, which I figure places the roots is the best possible position to regrow throughout the pot, mostly out but a little bit down, and plenty of material falls between them to end up under the crown. Finish filling pot back to previous level on stem/trunk.

...but sometimes I just chop off the bottom half with a shovel, shake off what's loose, and back in the same pot it goes, with new 'dirt' under the old mass.

Greentoe, that looks and sounds like what I would do, with what you found inside that pot. The only difference is that I would have trimmed the roots after separation so they fit back in a pot without bending or curling, but have no idea if that's worthy of concern or not.

The same method is definitely not applicable to all of the repots I do, which is probably common for most people who have an assortment of plants. Depends on what it is, and what's going on once you remove the pot and see the roots. After you've repotted a particular plant a few times, you get a feel for how they like it done. Sometimes the fierceness of the mosquitoes at the time determine how methodical a particular repot will be!

    Bookmark   July 31, 2013 at 3:46PM
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"Do not fear the garbage can". I needed to remind myself of that on a couple of occasions recently. Good advice.

Purple, sounds like you'd need to trim roots very drastically in a lot of repottings I've done recently if you are looking for the roots to "fit back in a pot without bending or curling". Just bought plants are often so pot-bound, that even if you step up the size of the pot the normally-recommended 2 inches, you'd need to trim more than half the length of the roots. Do I read you right? A pothos I repotted recently had these long streaks of roots. I can't imagine trimming them to half the diameter of the pot. I trimmed a bit, but not even close to this, I would just lay them randomly bent on a layer of the mix before adding more mix on top and calling it a day. What does anybody else do?

With this hoya I repotted, I did not trim the roots on purpose at all, thinking some definitely ripped off while separating the plants, and I did not want to do more damage. Would you have?

And I wonder about this: "I arrange the roots going straight out from the crown, spread out as much as possible, then start scooping in 'dirt,' then jiggle/raise it a bit, which I figure places the roots is the best possible position to regrow throughout the pot, mostly out but a little bit down, and plenty of material falls between them to end up under the crown."

This mostly makes sense to me, except I wonder when you raise the plant a bit to get the roots to point down slightly, aren't you also raising the mix on top of the roots, thus forming an undesirable air bubble underneath? I guess the "jiggling" part hopefully fills that space somewhat, although to do that completely would require the mix to form a small hill underneath the roots, and I can't imagine any amount of jiggling could do that with the way gravity works.

More broadly, I am very interested in what people do to avoid big air pockets - not the little beneficial ones that aerate the roots (I guess that is more of a question of the mix structure, not repotting techniques), but big ones where roots will never get water and eventually just dry out because of sub-optimal repotting.

This clivia I repotted comes to mind here. The roots grew very vigorously in a pot like this ( to the point where the plant started raising itself very visibly from out of the pot. When I lifted the roots to see what was happening, I saw that because of the structure of the pot and strength of the roots of this particular plant, they would find the wall of the pot, and then they would go straight down (couldn't circle because of those zig-zagged walls). When they reached the bottom, the plant would literally raise itself up on its root tippy-toes like a ballerina, leaving the mix underneath, especially with my lifting the root ball to check, yet more mix would drop to the bottom. I did not get to repot right away, and eventually (soon), the roots not on the walls of the pot all died because they were not in contact with the mix anymore. So, at repotting pictured here, I got myself a plant with very meaty and tight roots basically forming a dome with empty space underneath. Getting the mix in there was my concern, so let's just say there was a lot of shaking and tilting the pot. :-)

But that was not the last repotting of the plant. When I made gritty mix recently, I thought I'd replace the mix, as clivias like it on the dry side. To my disappointment, the roots that time looked less healthy than at previous repotting (pictured) - unfortunately I did not take a pic this last time. Not only did the roots not grow back in the middle of the root ball / under the stem, but also one side of the roots, maybe a 30 degree segment of the root ball, was all rotted away. I guess I did not get enough mix into the center to get new roots to regenerate, AND my mix before gritty mix was too moisture-retentive.

Lessons learned:
* that zig zag pot was inappropriate for clivia root structure and the growth rate (the pot is still ok with drilled holes for a lot of other plants, I think);
* repot sooner when you identify a problem, especially with a vigorously growing plant;
* to fill the void in the middle with mix that new roots could repopulate, I could prune many roots right down to the stem, so that there is some space next to the stems into which some mix could fall through into the space underneath I as trying to fill. This would require much more than half of the roots to be cut off right at the stem (see the pic), which seems very drastic.
* I guess another idea to fill that space without such drastic root-pruning is too take a pot with a big drain hole, not cover the drain hole with anything, to repot as usually, as if that empty space was not a concern, then duct-tape the whole top of the pot tight, so that it can be turned over without the mix spilling out, and then pour as much mix into the drain hole as it would take, while periodically shaking the pot a bit to settle it.

This last idea gives me an itch to repot yet again, perhaps next year - although I hope very much the space in the middle got filled through that rotted-away 30 degree segment on the side.

I am just glad this clivia seems to be a real trooper, taking all my "learning" (or "abuse" when looked from the plant's perspective) in strides, growing through much of this turmoil.

Any more comments/ideas are very much welcome. (Also how I can write more briefly, haha).

    Bookmark   July 31, 2013 at 7:25PM
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greenT, if you put your hand in fingers splayed - you can push the soil under the center of the plant. then you put more soil on sides with a spoon and repeat - your fingers push in diagonally under the plant, compressing the soil from sides to 'underneath the center of the plant'. do it sev times and you should be able to fill the pot. then you water until it starts draining - that will settle some more soil and then you toss some more on top. you do need to press it in a bit, don't be shy, push it with your fingers!
I've never had an air pocket under a crown.
as purple said: lift the plant with left hand slightly, which will free up space under the crown, allowing you to push in MORE soil with your fingers (right hand). until the the plant is as high as you want it to be. then you just finish the sides.
look for orchid repotting technique - that will be what you want to do (and what I described).

    Bookmark   July 31, 2013 at 9:00PM
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one more point - if your medium is moist, it won't flow. if the roots are fine it's easier to fill all the spaces with dry medium, or at least just barely moist - it shouldn't be clumping together.

    Bookmark   July 31, 2013 at 9:10PM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

I've never discovered a big hole or air pocket in a pot. Often, I put plants back in the same pot they "just outgrew" so it's necessary to trim roots quite a bit. And most plants I know from experience just don't mind parting with lots of roots, and that they will look better if actively growing new roots vs. having a ton of old roots smushed in a pot with no room to grow more.

The Pothos you mention grows new roots from nothing within days, so I wouldn't hesitate to remove most of those if I wanted to. I don't know anything about Clivia.

In your last pic, if that soil is what is in your pots, I would be concerned that there's no tiny air pockets in the pots at all. That looks like it would turn to mud when wet. Something much more chunky/porous, without tiny particles, will lead to much better root systems, thus better looking plants.

Here's some little Dracaena cuttings on their first repot. The naked root systems:

    Bookmark   August 1, 2013 at 9:32AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Here's one of those after trimming the roots. (The bag of stuff is for ground gardening, not for in pots.)

    Bookmark   August 1, 2013 at 9:34AM
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I try not to remove as much as purple, so I let them curl somewhat in the bottom, but 1/3 probably gets trimmed.
I actually use longer pots if roots are gigantic. like nursery pots - to have more room for the roots. I sometimes make my own 'tree pots" (usually 14" tall and narrow) using 2 pots: the wider 6" on top and 1qt yoghurt container (or similar) for the bottom. I cut out the bottom from the top one, wedge it in and put postal tape on the outside to hold it. that's for really long roots (I do this for amaryllis).
but for longer pots you need a well draining medium - gritty/511 is good. I use 50% perlite for water-wicking.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2013 at 10:04AM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

Yeah, no two people would do it exactly the same, even if given the same plant and 'new soil.' I love reading the different anecdotes. Always makes me feel better about pretty much anything I can remember doing in the past. Should inspire people to tackle the job more confidently when they think it should be done. It's unlikely to go badly unless you do something like break the plant, although that usually just means that now you have 2 plants instead of one.

The pics above were from October, here's the bunch'o'Dracs from yesterday, with some rhizomatous Begonias added to make the soil surface more interesting (and get rid of one more pot.) That's why I came back to this thread again so soon, noticed/remembered this pic which shows the same plants 9 mos 'after' the 'before' pics above.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2013 at 11:10AM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

All of these posts are GREAT! And it proves to show that plants are far, far more resilient and tough than most people give them credit for.

I'm all for dividing with a sharp knife technique, rather than pulling and tugging to separate. It does less damage. I also root prune with every re-pot....a little off the bottom and sides! Remember, root pruning encourages root branching just as top pruning does with the upper stems and branches. And I LOVE that someone else does not fear the garbage can, lol.

Great job, everyone.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2013 at 11:43AM
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oh, rhizo...the knife! I should've used it yesterday instead of unraveling the roots and pulling and tugging for 2 hours - on 6" was so dense it was unbelievable.
that was my first with stromanthe. now I know better. all rhizome clusters were inter-connected with roots..and I thought they were circling roots... I did have to cut them finally. it would be much easier and faster with a knife.
I bare rooted after much effort and lots of broken roots and even lots of broken growing tips too.
we'll see if it pulls thru. I divided into 3.

    Bookmark   August 1, 2013 at 12:41PM
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Petrushka, great idea to work the soil under the plant with a hand from underneath. I guess the hand size is a factor, but I'll try that next time with one of my bigger plants - clivia qualifies, I would think.

Purple, that dark soil is history forever, I am glad to say.

Rhizo, I wonder if slicing through the root ball of that hoya would have been better than teasing the roots apart. Any objective way to know? (studies / reputable sources?) Tickling the root ball under water felt good - I could feel the soil quickly dissolving / sinking into the water. Then I was patient with teasing the roots apart... Interesting point though about encouraging roots to branch when trimming them.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2013 at 3:20AM
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